bioephemera

Today FAS put up an online public archive of documents produced by the Office of Technology Assessment.

As you may know, the OTA was a legislative office authorized in 1972 to produce comprehensive nonpartisan reports for Congress on a variety of scientific topics. It was defunded and closed in 1995, and the bulky paper reports it produced have been rather hard to find. Although these reports no longer represent the state of the science, they are remarkable, often prescient time capsules – a fascinating look at how teams of experts tried to predict the trajectory of new technologies we now take for granted.

For example, “Commercial Biotechnology, An International Analysis” (1984) predicts that Japan, Germany, the UK, Switzerland and France will be our major competitors in biotechnology, adding,

Because of the rapid diffusion of the new genetic techniques into pharmaceutical R&D programs, the pharmaceutical sector is currently most active in commercializing biotechnology. For this reason, it serves as a model for the industrial development of biotechnology in much of this report. It is important to recognize, however, that the development of biotechnology in other industrial sectors will differ from its development in the pharmaceutical sector. Regulatory and trade barriers and a marketing and distribution system unique to the pharmaceutical sector limit its usefulness as a model. Furthermore, the techniques may not diffuse as rapidly into other industrial sectors, such as the chemical industry, because of difficulties companies may have in recovering investments in R&D and physical plants required to convert to biological methods of production. . . As more is learned about hormone growth factors, immune regulators, and neurological peptides, their importance in the treatment of disease may increase dramatically. Eventually, the production of such regulatory proteins may turn out to be the largest application of biotechnology in the pharmaceutical industry.

Not too bad.

The OTA archive has actually been available through Princeton for some time, along with a collection of articles about the office and its demise. This new attention to the archive coincides with a political movement to reinstate the OTA. The FAS site is obviously in favor of doing so; it features an interview with Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey about why the OTA would be essential today, perhaps even more so than in previous decades.